PRINT October 1999


Patrick Heron

ACTIVE AS A PAINTER FOR BETTER than sixty years, as a writer on art for more than fifty, and as a campaigner on art education and landscape conservation for thirty, Patrick Heron never lost his passion, his innocence, or his idealism. That was what made any encounter with Patrick, his paintings, or his words a life-enhancing experience. Whether he was working for the preservation of the independent art schools in Britain or against the removal of field boundaries in West Penwith, his early-modernist sense of the need to adopt a firm moral position, whether aesthetic or political, gave his many campaigns considerable force.

Patrick’s passion was inspired by a profound generosity of spirit. He was a maker of reputations for others, not himself. “You open the eyes to those things which ordinary critics are unaware of,” wrote Braque to Heron in 1955, on receiving a copy of The Changing Forms of Art.

Patrick opened the eyes of British viewers in a series of articles published in the ’40s and ’50s, and again in his response to major shows of Picasso, Bonnard, Matisse, and Constable in the ’90s. He was the early champion of his friends, from Peter Lanyon to Prunella Clough, but he also wrote admiringly of the American postwar painters long before they were held in high regard in Europe. Only later, out of irritation with what he saw as the lemminglike response of British critics, did he react against the dominant position American painting had achieved, to defend the achievements of Lanyon as well as his own and to claim their influence on later developments in New York.

Not that Patrick ever doubted the value of his own work. Indeed, his endearing habit of placing himself within the canon is perfectly captured in his 1970 obituary of Barnett Newman. Over lunch with the painter and his wife in Brooklyn around 1960, Newman expressed his delight in the coincidence of his birthday falling on the day after Pollock’s. Patrick, with impish pleasure, informed Newman that his own birthday fell on the following day. “Newman nearly upset the table,” he wrote in the obituary.

Patrick found his distinctive voice in his early thirties in the extraordinary series of garden paintings inspired by his return to Cornwall, and by the renewed association with the Arnold-Forster garden at Eagles Nest. The house and garden, perched on an outcrop above the sea, lie at the center of his life and work. He resisted any explicit connection for many years, but no one encountering him at home with the exquisitely arranged paintings and objects, vibrant moments of color in white rooms that responded to the changing conditions of weather and light, could doubt it.

Patrick’s Tate retrospective last year was completed by the late garden paintings, including the final abstracted evocation of Eagles Nest, a view of the house and garden with rocks and clumps of vegetation, painted over three late-January days in 1998. The show fully revealed at last the power and originality of Patrick’s painting to a large British public, and they responded in numbers exceeding anyone’s expectation.

Nicholas Serota is director of the Tate Gallery, London.